A Bag of Marbles (Un Sac de Billes), the winner of four (and counting) major film festival awards, tells the stirring story of Joseph Joffo, a 10-year-old Parisian Jewish boy during World War II.
Based on Joffo’s memoirs, the film, which is presented in French with English subtitles, details the true story of the Joffo family as they attempt to survive the German occupation of France. It debuts on April 27 at the Ritz at the Bourse.
The film opens with Joseph and his older brother Maurice playing marbles (hence the title) near their school. The scene depicts a typically youthful interaction with good-natured fraternal rivalry and innocence.
Soon, the boys scamper off to visit their father’s place of business, a barber shop, the window of which contains a sign indicating the shop is Jewish owned. The boys see a couple of German soldiers heading toward the store and mischievously stand in front of the sign to block the “Jewish” label.
Unwittingly, the soldiers enter, receive haircuts and speak loudly and disparagingly of Jews. Roman Joffo, the boys’ father, whose two older sons also work in the shop, tells the soldiers as they leave that the shop is owned by and filled with Jews. Angry, the soldiers storm out.
Later, Roman Joffo explains to the boys the danger of their prank, but the sequence effectively conveys the themes of youthful naiveté and mischief amid danger, as well as the concepts of unity, family, courage and human dignity.
As the climate becomes more hostile to Jews, the family decides to flee occupied Paris for the free zone. Realizing that the six of them traveling together would be conspicuous, they dispatch the two elder boys ahead to Nice, then send the two younger boys off with cash, a map, train tickets and clear instructions. The farewell scene is heartbreaking and intense as the patriarch brutally conveys the importance of denying their faith or risking death. Soon the two boys are off on their journey.
The film uses contrast effectively, juxtaposing breathtakingly beautiful scenery with abject horror, and humorous interplay between the brothers with devastating sadness. As the boys walk through the picturesque French countryside they evade disaster through luck and quick thinking, but many around them are not so fortunate.
Dorian Le Clech, the young actor who plays Joseph, is spectacular; his spirit, his love for his family, his courage, vulnerability and kindness come through in every scene.
Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, who portrays Maurice, is equally affecting. An adolescent, he convincingly straddles the worlds of childhood and adulthood — jocularly ribbing his little brother, yet shouldering the awesome responsibility of keeping him safe amid unspeakable danger.
The parents deliver epic performances, too. Patrick Bruel as Roman Joffo emits a quiet intensity throughout; he is a loving and gentle man, yet possesses strength, wit and honor.
Bruel described his approach in the press material: “He is a reference, a good man, necessarily tormented because he is one step ahead of others. He senses what will happen and he has already overcome terrible trials: his escape during the pogroms. He knows that what happened in the past can come back and so he tries to anticipate. It was an unusual reaction, but essential in these moments.”
Elsa Zylberstein as Anna Joffo has less to do but makes the most of her screen time. In one memorable scene, the police raid the home after hearing her playing the violin. The family hides as Roman attempts to talk the gendarmes away; Anna Joffo enters and haughtily passes herself off as Russian royalty.
“In this scene we see her intelligence, her audacity, her consciousness,” Zylberstein said in the press material. “She takes incredible risks. … In the moments of survival, she is able to surpass herself. When a person has such calmness, it shows that they’re ready for anything.”
Throughout the movie, while separated from their family, the boys encounter kindness and help in unexpected places: Catholic priests, a doctor conducting inspections for the Nazis (a memorable performance by Christian Clavier) and the head of the boys’ home where they are placed for safety, yet the sense of imminent danger underpins every moment.
Director Christian Duguay, a French Canadian, was selected for A Bag of Marbles based on his work on a prior work titled Jappeloup.
“When they asked me if I knew Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo, I had to tell them that I had never read it. That being said, the book isn’t very known in Quebec,” Duguay said in the press material. “While reading it, I was shocked by the tenacity, the conviction and the power behind this extremely hopeful story. It’s a brilliant novel, shared through the children’s point of view, about the world around them and how reality catches up to them.”
As the boys evade capture, they eventually land jobs in a small town in southern France.
Joseph lives in the home of a bookseller; in exchange for room and board, he delivers newspapers. The host family collaborates with the Germans, and the father and brother are overtly anti-Jewish. Joseph develops a crush on Francoise, the daughter of the house — a sweet, innocent moment amid abject horror.
Maurice works in a local restaurant that supports the Resistance; the brothers remain in close contact and, in one suspenseful scene, manage to outsmart a Nazi raider seeking to catch the Resistance and expose its network.
Ultimately, the war ends and, like so many families, the Joffos face a heartbreaking truth. But they also experience joy.
Upon seeing the film, Joseph Joffo said: “Today, the life I lived still strongly and heavily resonates with people. Because of terrorism, children everywhere are force to escape, too. Like us, 50 years ago, they’re found on the side of the roads, totally alone and left to fend for themselves.”
Keri White is a freelance writer and a Jewish Exponent food columnist.